Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart Wi-Fi Router (R7000) review: A solid network and storage powerhouse
The Netgear R7000 is a new router from Netgear in more ways than one, and is the best Netgear has made for home users, to date.
Indeed, it offers quite a lot for the price. It's powered by a dual-core processor that runs at 1GHz, which makes it the fastest 802.11ac router from Netgear and among the fastest on the market. On top of that, the R7000 also offers a few unique features not available in Netgear home routers before, including a built-in OpenVPN server, the support for Broadcom TurboQAM for a faster Wi-Fi speed cap of up to 600Mbps, and the official support for third-party firmware, such as DD-WRT. And when coupled with an external storage device, the router is also Time Machine backup-ready.
Yet, the biggest caveat here (pun intended) is that the R7000 is the bulkiest Wi-Fi router I've seen. You'll need a lot of space for it -- and a clear wall-socket for its equally large power adapter -- and the Web interface and mobile app aren't as useful as they could be. Still, at the current price of $200/AU$319, it's a great deal when compared with the similarly configured and recently reviewed Asus RT-AC68U. Some $20 cheaper, it makes a formidable contender to the Asus counterpart, and it's definitely a much better deal than the new AirPort Extreme for Mac users. For more options on 802.11ac routers that are also more affordable, check out this list.
Solid build, extra bulky design, plug-and-play setup
The R7000 is just slightly larger than the R6300 that came out more than a year ago. However, it has much larger footprint because the new design makes it stay flat on the surface instead of standing vertically, and it's much bulkier due to its three detachable external antennas. To make up for that, it's now wall-mountable, which the R6300 isn't. The router is housed in a plastic chassis but it feels solid and sturdy. I also like the fact that its skin doesn't attract fingerprints at all.
Similar to the R6100, the R7000 is very easy to set up. The router comes with a preset Wi-Fi network with its name and password printed on a label on its bottom for the 2.4GHz band. (The 5GHz band network's name is that of the 2.4GHz network plus the "-5G" suffix and shares the same password. Note that these networks' names are visible to Wi-Fi clients). With this information, you just can just plug the router to an internet source using the included network cable, turn it on and you're good to go.
If you lose this label, once everything is plugged in, the first time you run the browser from a connected device, it will take you to the router's Netgear Genie Web interface. After a few seconds, the interface will show you the same information for you to print or write down.
From then on if you want to further customize the router, just go back to its Web interface by pointing the browser of a connected device to www.routerlogin.net or the router's default IP address, which is 192.168.1.1. The default log-in credentials are admin for the username and password for the password. Alternatively, you can also download the Netgear Genie mobile app (available for both Android and iOS) for the same job. I personally prefer the Web interface since it's much more comprehensive than the mobile app, which is convenient but only permits customizing a limited amount of settings.
The R7000 offers everything found in the previous model, the R6300, and a whole lot more. This is a true dual-band router that supports all existing Wi-Fi clients on the market, regardless of their Wi-Fi standard. On the 5GHz band, when working with 802.11ac clients, it offers up to 1.3Gbps Wi-Fi speed, which is already what the R6300 offers. But on the 2.4GHz band, the R7000 offers up to 600Mbps of wireless speed, instead of the old 450Mbps.
This is because it's the second on the market (the first being the Asus RT-AC68U) that uses the new Broadcom BCM4709 Wi-Fi chip, which includes the proprietary TurboQAM technology. With TurboQAM, each 2.4GHz spatial stream can deliver up to 200Mbps instead of 150Mbps. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards here.) Needless to say, this chip offers more benefits to the now-aging 2.4GHz Wi-Fi than the newer 5GHz Wi-Fi, though you need a TurboQAM-compatible wireless client to really take advantage of it. In my testing, however, I found that legacy clients also saw better performance, though not as significant.
On top of that the R7000 comes with other impressive hardware components, including dual-core CPU that runs at 1,000MHz, 128GB of flash memory as storage space, and 256MB of DDR RAM. The router also now supports USB 3.0, with one port on the front.
Nice feature set, now with built-in VPN server
The R7000 has all the features available in previous Netgear routers and more.
The common features include two guest networks (one for each frequency band), and a host of customizable settings OpenDNS-based parental controls. All of these have been available in previous Netgear routers.
First introduced with the WNR2000 in 2009, Parental Controls works with a free account of OpenDNS. Once an account has been created, you can download and install the Netgear Live Parental Controls Management Utility (available for both Windows and Mac) to associate the router with the account. The software then can be used to manage this feature. You choose between five overall Web-filtering levels: high, moderate, low, minimum, and none, where high means most traffic will be blocked, and none means nothing will be blocked. You can also sign in from anywhere via the OpenDNS Web site to manage this feature of your home router. Oddly, however, you can't use the router's Web interface itself for this job.
The R7000 now comes with a new Quality of Service (QoS) feature that allows you to manage both the upstream and the downstream (instead of just upstream in the R6100). However, there are a lot more options you can customize for upstream than for downstream, which you basically can just turn on or off. QoS allows for prioritizing the Internet so that real-time applications, such as online gaming, video chat, or HD streaming get the the bandwidth they need to ensure optimal user experience. This is generally a major feature of a home router.
The R7000 has two USB port, one USB 2.0 on the back and one USB 3.0 on the from. This is a little awkward; you'll have something sticking out of the front all the time if you want to take advantage of USB 3.0, which is 10 times faster than USB 2.0. You can use these USB ports to host printers and/or USB external hard drives.
In my trial, the router could handle hard drives formatted in FAT32 or NTFS, and the USB ports provided enough juice to power any portable bus-powered external drives. It could also support hard drives of top capacities. Once a drive is plugged in, its contents will be immediately shared across the network with everybody having full access to it. But you can also customize the share folders for security or privacy purposes. The router supports the SMB protocol, meaning any computer in the network can browse the shares using a network browser such as Windows Explorer or Finder. Share folders can also be turned into an FTP site for those who want to access them over the Internet.
The new thing about the R7000's storage capability is the fact that it now supports Time Machine backup, making the router a much better alternative to the new AirPort Extreme, in terms of functionality (and also performance, more below). It also comes with great backup software called ReadyShare Vault for Windows computers.
If you choose to store digital content on the connected hard drive, it can also be streamed to DLNA-compliant network media players, and iTunes with AirPlay support. This feature automatically scans the attached external hard drive for digital content, making it available to devices within the network. The router can also automatically scan for new content when new files are added, or repeatedly over a period of time.
The R7000 shares the same Netgear Genie mobile app as that previous models. In addition to managing the router's settings, you can use this app to stream digital content to a mobile device, such as an iPad. However, you can only do that when the mobile device is within the local network powered by the router. When you're out and about, or if the device connects to different Wi-Fi network, the Netgear Genie app will not work at. Overall, I found this app rather limited though it has a lot of potential.
To sum up, if you have used Netgear router before, you can expect the R7000 to offer all the features and settings you're familiar with, plus a better QoS, Time Machine backup support, and a built-in OpenVPN server. The router also officially supports third-party firmware, such as DD-WRT.
Stellar performance (almost) throughout
If I hadn't reviewed the Asus RT-AC68U, I would have been totally blown away by the R7000's performance. I had, however, and still I was very impressed by it.
Overall, despite higher specs, the R7000 (powered by a 1GHz processor) is slightly slower than its Asus counterpart (powered by a 800MHz processor), but only within the margin of error. The two routers are by far the fastest on the market.
For 802.11ac, which is only available on the 5GHz band, the R7000 offered the sustained real-world speed of 431Mbps (or some 54MBps) at a close distance of 15 feet away. This is a very fast speed, about seven times the speed of a regular Ethernet connection. When I increased the range to 100 feet, the speed was reduced to 295Mbps, still one of the fastest. For this test, the Asus offered 521Mbps and 336Mbps for short and long ranges, respectively.
CNET Labs 802.11ac performance score (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
For 802.11n, on the 5GHz band, the R7000 also did very well with 188Mbps and 181Mbps for short and long distance, respectively. Its long range score was actually faster than that of the Asus, which scored just 176Mbps.
And finally on the 2.4GHz, where I expected to see the most improvement because this is where the TurboQAM technology is supposed to boost the performance, the R7000 didn't impress much. It scored 117Mbps for short range and 64Mbps for long range, still much faster than most existing routers, but much slower than the Asus. In the Netgear's defense, I used a second R7000 router working in bridge mode as the client for this test, and Netgear doesn't offer many options to make sure that the first and second unit are connected using the fastest standard possible.
CNET Labs 5GHz Wireless-N performance score (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
CNET Labs 2.4GHz Wireless-N performance score (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Similar to the Asus RT-AC68U, the Netgear R7000 passed the 48-hour stress test without any hiccups and offered exceptionally long range, with the effective range being some 200 feet away. I was able to pick up its signal much further than that -- up to 300 feet away -- but at over 200 feet, the signal was not strong enough for a reliable Wi-Fi connection. Note that I tested the router at CNET's offices, where there are walls and many Wi-Fi devices that are out of my control. Generally, walls shorten the reach of a Wi-Fi signal, and other Wi-Fi devices create interference. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.
CNET Labs NAS performance scores via wired Gigabit Ethernet connection (in megabytes per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
And finally, when coupled with an external hard drive plugged to its USB 3.0 port, the R7000 offered excellent network storage performance. Via a Gigabit Ethernet connection, it registered 39MBps for writing, slightly slower than 41MBps of the Asus, and 60MBps for reading, slightly faster than the Asus' 54MBps. These were very fast, and are in fact, faster than many dedicated NAS servers. This means all you need is a sizable USB 3.0 external hard drive and the R7000 will make your home network storage solution complete.
The Netgear R7000 is not just a Wi-Fi router but also a capable NAS server when coupled with a USB 3.0 external hard drive. It's another testament to the success of the Broadcom BCM4709 Wi-Fi chip, which helps bring great Wi-Fi experience to both new and older Wi-Fi clients.
Together with the Asus RT-AC68U, the Netgear R7000 brings home networking to a new level of performance and capabilities. As to which one you'll want to get, it depends. If you want support for Time Machine backups, the Netgear is definitely the way to go, but the Asus comes with Dual-WAN and a few other nifty unique features of its own. For me personally, the clearly faster performance of the Asus on the 2.4Ghz band is worth the $20 extra cost.